On Banality

“This is why the suburban housing subdivisions are so sickening in their endless, banal replication. They deny and confute the tragic nature of life because they are places not worth caring about.” – James Howard Kunstler; Home From Nowhere; p. 22

Photo by Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember one of the moments when, as a child, I began to understand that we lived in “the suburbs” instead of in “my neighborhood”.  On a family walk, my parents pointed to a house several houses down the street from ours and said, “That house looks different from the outside, but it was built at the same time as our house by the same builder.  Inside it is exactly like our house but with other people’s stuff.”

I was in awe.

I imagined how it would feel to step inside the house.  Was the echo room of “my room” similarly a young girl’s shrine to computer games and dolphins and Madeleine L’Engle books?  Or was it the room of a more athletic child, with a wall of soccer trophies?  Or the room of a grandparent, with a small television near the bed and an antique dresser covered in ceramic figurines?  Would the other residents know something about my house I didn’t?  Like a secret door exposed by kicking the large blue flower on the dining room wallpaper?  Or did they not even have that flowered wallpaper?

I wondered about the builders, sneakily adding a brick facade, grinning at the trick they were playing on future residents.  Maybe if they had been especially skilled builders, they might have (still grinning) added in a portal, so that one day I would wake up and walk downstairs into my kitchen’s twin: different pots and pans and smells.  A pantry full of foods that I ate with my friends down the street but that my family wouldn’t know how to cook.  Rice papers and bottles of sesame oil and ginger candies .  Or maybe just small differences – Lucky Charms instead of Kix and Shredded Wheat.

Granted, Kunstler is hardly the first to make the “banality of the suburbs” argument.  Granted, I only just read Home From Nowhere, which was published in 1998.  And there is much that is upsetting about classic suburban-style development.  It is expensive, stressing municipalities’ budgets as well as natural resources.  A lack of density makes markets tenuous; fewer rooftops per acre means fewer opportunities for jobs and services within walking distance.  And, when thinking about the suburbs as an abstration, tract housing is generally considered “part of the package”.  And some might find those sorts of housing developments ugly.

But banal?  What could be banal about looking across the street and seeing your home reflected back with a different skin?  What could be banal about families of all backgrounds starting with the same set of constraints – the extra storage crawlspace under the stairs, the narrow second-story hallway, the double-pane windows – and from those constraints, creating home?

4 comments

  1. That is such an interesting way to think about the suburbs. I was always so disdainful of seeing house after house that looked the same but then thinking of how each one has a mysterious and different inside sort of shifts my perspective… Hehe, those houses, they’re like a box of chocolates…never know what you’re inns get.
    Sorry. I had to go there:)

  2. This was so interesting to read. I remember that one of my friends growing up actually lived in one of our “sister” houses. Small things about the construction were different — for instance, there was a half wall between the dining room and the living room, and the fireplace was flanked by white wooden shelving rather than brickwork. The strangest thing, though, was how different it felt inside. It was decidedly not the same house, despite its being so similarly constructed. And then, after a while, I stopped noticing both the many similarities and few striking differences. It simply was her house.

    1. Vicinity Blog · · Reply

      I don’t think I realized/remembered that you knew someone who lived in a “sister house”!

      1. It really was strange!

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